How does the actual NBA Draft Lottery work?
You know the Bulls have a 12.5 percent chance of obtaining the first pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. You’ve seen the scenario play out where they fall as low as No. 8. You have some wacky friends who actually believe the whole process is rigged for large markets despite Phoenix, Minnesota and Cleveland (twice) winning it four of the last six seasons.
But how exactly does the NBA Draft Lottery work? NBA deputy commissioner will bring out 14 crisp envelopes on the night of May 14 and open them up in reverse order, revealing which teams have moved up and which have moved down in the Lottery.
But there’s an entire process that plays out before that moment. You can watch last year’s drawing here but we’ll also explain it below.
How are Lottery odds divvied up?
The 14 teams that did not qualify for the postseason make up the Lottery pool. The 1,000 potential Lottery combinations are divided among those 14 teams based on regular season record. The process changed in 2019, giving more evenly dispersed odds to the Lottery teams. Also, the NBA will now draw for the top four picks instead of the top three. Here’s what the odds look like for each draft slot:
1. 140 combinations, 14.0% chance
2. 140 combinations, 14.0% chance
3. 140 combinations, 14.0% chance
4. 125 combinations, 12.5% chance
5. 105 combinations, 10.5% chance
6. 90 combinations, 9.0% chance
7. 75 combinations, 7.5% chance
8. 60 combinations, 6.0% chance
9. 45 combinations, 4.5% chance
10. 30 combinations, 3.0% chance
11. 20 combinations, 2.0% chance
12. 15 combinations, 1.5% chance
13. 10 combinations, 1.0% chance
14. 5 combinations, 0.5% chance
Of course, those are only the combinations if all 14 teams have different records. Ties happen just about every season, and 2019 was no different. The Pelicans, Grizzlies and Mavericks (7, 8, 9) all finished with a 33-49 record, while the Hornets, Heat and Kings (12, 13, 14) all finished with a 39-43 record. So the first group of tied teams will divide 180 combinations equally (75+60+45 divided by 3) while the latter group of tied teams will split the 30 combinations equally (15+10+5 divided by 3). So the actual combinations for 2019 look like this:
1. New York Knicks: 140 combinations, 14.0% chance
2. Cleveland Cavaliers: 140 combinations, 14.0% chance
3. Phoenix Suns: 140 combinations, 14.0% chance
4. Chicago Bulls: 125 combinations, 12.5% chance
5. Atlanta Hawks: 105 combinations, 10.5% chance
6. Washington Wizards: 90 combinations, 9.0% chance
7. New Orleans Pelicans: 60 combinations, 6.0% chance
8. Memphis Grizzlies: 60 combinations, 6.0% chance
9. Dallas Mavericks*: 60 combinations, 6.0% chance
10. Minnesota Timberwolves: 30 combinations, 3.0% chance
11. Los Angeles Lakers: 20 combinations, 2.0% chance
12. Charlotte Hornets: 10 combinations, 1.0% chance
13. Miami Heat: 10 combinations, 1.0% chance
14. Sacramento Kings**: 10 combinations, 1.0% chance
*Dallas’ pick will go to Atlanta if it falls outside the top-5
**Sacramento’s pick will go to Boston unless it is No. 1. In that case, the pick conveys to Philadelphia
But what are the combinations made up of?
So, you see that the Bulls have 125 “combinations” that would give them the first pick. What exactly does that mean? Well, before ESPN airs the Lottery results, the NBA holds the actual drawing in a private room with representatives from all 14 teams in attendance.
Here’s how the drawing works. There are 14 ping pong balls numbered 1 to 14. Someone smarter at math than this author figured out that there are 1,001 four-ball combinations when drawing from 14 balls without regard to order. Those 1,0001 combinations make up the percentages above (there is one combination – 11, 12, 13, 14 in any order – that is not assigned to the 14 teams).
Those balls are dropped into a glass drum and mixed around for 20 seconds. At that point, four balls are drawn for the first pick in 10-second intervals. In 2018, the first four-ball combination pulled was 9-12-6-1. That combination was one of Phoenix’s 250 combinations (remember, the odds were different before this season, so Phoenix had a 25% chance – or 250 combinations – to get the first pick).
The process of four balls being drawn is then repeated to determine who picks second. In 2018, the next combination drawn was 11-13-3-1. This also belonged to Phoenix, so the order was reset and balls were drawn again. Incredibly, the third set our four balls drawn belonged to the Suns again (you can see why the NBA changed the odds structure).
On the fourth try the Sacramento Kings’ combination was pulled, giving them the second overall pick. The balls were again placed back in the drum to determine which team would pick third. Ultimately, this final four-ball combination – 5-4-6-12 – belonged to the Atlanta Hawks.
With the top three picks set – Phoenix, Sacramento, Atlanta – picks 4 through 14 were given to the remaining Lottery teams in reserve standings order. This bumped the Grizzlies, who had the second-best Lottery odds, to No. 4 since both Sacramento and Atlanta jumped them. The Mavericks, who had the third-best odds, were pushed back two slots by the Kings and Hawks to No. 5.
In 2019, this exact same process will play out but there will then be a drawing for the fourth pick. Then the remaining 10 teams will be slotted in reverse standings order.
So what are the odds the Bulls move up or down?
Well, we all know the famous 12.5% chance that would land the Bulls with the top pick and Zion Williamson. Past that, here are the percent chances that the Bulls land the listed pick:
1st: 12.5% chance
2nd: 12.2% chance
3rd: 11.9% chance
4th: 11.5% chance
5th: 7.2% chance
6th: 25.7% chance
7th: 16.7% chance
8th: 2.2% chance